Every year, there is always one film that all the critics seem to love but doesn’t connect with me. Films like The Revenant, which won DiCaprio an Oscar but which I found to be all style and no substance.
This year, that film is Call Me By Your Name. It’s got a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the National Review Board named it one of the ten best films of 2017. Normally, I would simply roll my eyes, wonder why everyone is throwing raves at a film with the pacing of a geriatric trying to lose a footrace to a snail, and leave it at that.
But when I saw the film, I realized there were aspects of it that I need to respond to – namely, how such a film like Name can win such reviews in a year that has been marked by a cultural reexamination of sex, sexuality, and the use of positions of power to seduce young, less powerful people. Frankly, I found Call Me By Your Name creepy.
Call Me By Your Name is a gay romance film. The 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is seduced by a PhD student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) who is living with Elio’s family over the summer to help his professor father with his work.
The film wouldn’t be worthwhile even without the undertones I’m discussing. Somehow, it takes two and a half hours to tell this story, which includes every Merchant/Ivory stereotype imaginable. (James Ivory wrote the screenplay.) It’s obsessed with the nostalgia and all of the characters are the sort of people who embody the phrase “Starbuck liberal.” They live in a huge mansion despite never seemingly doing anything. (OK, yes, there are scenes of the professor looking over pictures of ancient statues for research and going to an archaeological dig, but his profession is treated as an afterthought.) There are long scenes of characters playing the piano and walking along a lake just to pass the time. And the editor seemed to feel that, if it was shot, then it deserves to be in the movie. One long shot shows Elio and Oliver are riding bikes and abandon them to walk. But the film keeps showing their forgotten bicycles as they retreat further along the path. I wanted to tell the camera man to stop being lazy and get over there. There are elements of the film that I liked. The soundtrack is good and the father’s final monologue is profoundly moving. But it didn’t end up meaning anything to me. Close your eyes and picture an Oscar bait drama. Call Me By Your Name is exactly that. The film means nothing but seems to imply enough to make people wonder if it’s meant to be profound. It’s the Chauncey Gardiner of movies.
But let’s address the main reason I am writing this – the relationship between Elio and Oliver. There have been some truly wonderful films about gay romance. Last year’s Moonlight comes to mind. Milk also had some great sex scenes that showcased the passion between the characters. Gods and Monsters is a fantastic film about an old man trying to recapture his youth by seducing a young gardener. The fact this old man happens to be the celebrated director of Frankenstein helps everyone realize how progressive some of those old monster movies were. Blue Is the Warmest Color is one of the greatest, most honest love stories I’ve ever seen.
I never felt such a connection in Elio and Oliver’s story. Mostly, I was concerned about Elio. He was clearly still wondering what exactly these feelings about Oliver meant and if he was truly ready to act on them. And Oliver spent the entire time mocking him for it. There’s a scene late in the film in which Elio masturbates into a peach. When Oliver finds it, he mocks Elio and goes in to take a bite of the peach. Elio begs him to stop, but Oliver continues to tease him with it.
This is not seduction. Elio is clearly embarrassed and Oliver wants to do nothing but take advantage of Elio’s naiveté. And it made me think of some of the recent headlines that have dominated our national conversation.
We live in a time when sexual assault cases are finally catching up to powerful people. Kevin Spacey forced an affair with several men (at least one of whom was under aged) and has gone from one of the most celebrated American actors to a pariah who is unlikely to find work for a long, long time. Harvey Weinstein helped produced some of the greatest films of the past 40 years, but the accusations against him have ruined his career in a matter of weeks.
Was it just because of the fact that they were, at best, inappropriately pressuring romantic partners? No, it’s because they were powerful people who used their positions of power to abuse people they did not view as equals. To them, their actions were about exerting that power over people who could do nothing to stop it. It was a game to them.
There are just so many scenes in which I felt Oliver was acting the same way. I talked about the peach scene above. There’s another scene in which an intoxicated Elio vomits in the street after a night out with Oliver, who treats it as entertainment. Oliver is also the one who ensures that Elio can see his naked body as he is changing to go swimming. To Oliver, Elio is a play thing. Yes, there are scenes in which Elio starts to be more assertive in his feelings. (He’s the one who kisses Oliver first.) But too many scenes took me out of the film and back into the reality we live in. Why should I feel charmed by this story when I’ve seen how it plays out in our world?
“Well, what about Dirty Dancing?” someone told me after I confessed my views. “That’s about a 17-year-old having a relationship with a much older person and it’s a classic.” That was a good point and I was willing to address it to them directly up until they told me to, quote, “fuck my double standard.”
But I’ll address it here. Yes, Baby is a teenager and is much younger than Johnny. But Dirty Dancing was not only told entirely from Baby’s point of view, it painted Baby as Johnny’s equal. Baby was a smart, confident young woman who initiates all of the romantic overtures with Johnny. Indeed, Johnny initially scoffs at the idea Baby can be his “dance partner,” and the film ends with her as Johnny’s equal in every way.
Call Me By Your Name doesn’t do that. The whole reason Elio seems to be attracted to Oliver is because Oliver is everything Elio is not – and more. The film paints Elio as an inexperienced skinny youth who has isolated himself from the ways of the world, while Oliver is a stereotypical “manly man” who is not only extroverted but constantly in control over everyone he meets. He looks far older than his character is supposed to be. (Oliver is 24, but Hammer is 30.) This is something the film goes to great lengths to acknowledge Elio’s inexperience and his adolescent looks. I never felt that Oliver and Elio were equals in the relationship, and the more I thought about it, the worse it got for me.
Call Me By Your Name may have worked in another year. But it comes across as incredibly tone-deaf to release such a film now. Some have already said that they disagree with me. Fine. To them, I ask they think about what the outcry would be if the film were told exactly as it was but Elio was a young woman. There would be pitchforks and torches outside the distributor’s offices.